It had been a couple of years since Brian and I attended an entire horsemanship clinic. We’ve been watching videos, reading, and continuing to grow in other ways, but the immersive experience of thinking about nothing but horses for several days running it definitely a special kind of boost. When we saw Buck was going to be in South Dakota, a reasonable 10 hour drive from us and at a time of the year we could both take some time off, we decided to go audit. The clinic consisted of two classes: Foundation Horsemanship in the morning, Horsemanship II in the afternoon. This seemed perfect, as Brian and I each have a green horse we’re working with, and also a more advanced one we’re trying to bring along.
To add to the excitement, during our drive out Brian’s student, K, who’s been riding with us for quite some time now and leased Aiden for a while, found a horse she was pretty interested in buying. So our first night in Rapid City we were reviewing videos of her riding and sending our thoughts back to her. By the next day, the horse was hers.
So as the clinic started, I was thinking about everything Buck was saying in relationship to five different horses. Piper and Steen are the two I’m most connected to, of course, but Brian and I also talk a ton about Nevada and Laredo and what he’s working on with them. And we knew enough about K’s new horse to have a good guess at some of the initial challenges she would face starting off.
As usual, it is difficult to summarize four days of learning into a single blog post, but there were a few concepts that stood out for me in terms of shining light on a few things that have been holding me back.
Stick with Plan A Until It’s Reliable
This, I think, was the most important lesson I’m bringing home from the clinic. I long ago internalized the, “Always offer a good deal message.” I think I’m pretty darn consistent with offering a very light ask (plan A) before coming in with a bigger ask if Plan A fails (Plan B.) But I realized what I sometimes do, particularly for movements that are new to a horse or things I’m not as confident I’ll feel correctly, is I will offer the good deal, make it happen once or twice, and then move on. It seems obvious now that this won’t always bring about reliable change in the horse. If the good deal doesn’t have the desired effect, you need to keep at it, offering the good deal again and again until the good deal actually works several times in a row. I think this will have a big impact for some of things I find Steen is inconsistent with in terms of how much it takes for me to help him to make it, like canter departures from the walk, leg-yields with the haunch leading, and haunches in.
Lateral Movements are Critical
During Buck’s warm-ups, I was a little surprised to notice how much of his time he spent on lateral movements. Later he talked about this, and how important it is to get young horses supple and able to separate the hind and the front, to be able to tip the hips in either direction, to move along a diagonal with rhythm and at all gaits. I feel like I dabble with lateral movements regularly, but I don’t really commit to working on them in a focused way. That’s something I plan to change now, most particularly in terms of introducing them to Piper sooner rather than later.
Have a Warm-Up Sequence
When Buck came out each morning and worked with his young horses, he had a series of movements he would check out, one by one, before progressing to a more advanced request. The first thing was just checking in with walking a nice circle. From there he’d go on to things like serpentines, then a soft feel, then holding a soft feel, then moving up to the trot, etc. etc.. Buck emphasized these things are ordered with the easiest first, and he doesn’t move to the next thing until whatever he is working on feels good. If he finds something that needs work, he dwells there until he gets a change before moving on. I certainly have things I do to make sure my horse is in a good state of mind as I move into a ride, but I’m going to try to be more systematic about it now.
“Life” Isn’t Necessarily About Speed
Multiple times during the clinic, Buck brought up the importance of having good life in your horse, and also making a distinction between energy and life. He explained that bringing life up in your horse doesn’t mean just making it move out. He emphasized life is about punctuality. A horse that takes four kicks to move out doesn’t have good life, but neither does a horse that is running through the bit and is therefore slow to get stopped. The critical question is how quickly can you change what your horse is doing with its feet and how responsive the horse is when asked for a change. This actually made me feel better about where I’m at with Piper. She does respond quickly when I ask her for changes – she just doesn’t have a lot of confidence yet about moving at speed. This is consistent with her personality. She is a very cautious horse, and it’s easy to push her too hard. But her mind is on the right track and she’s with me, I just need to build her up until she’s more relaxed about traveling.
Those Pesky Open Doors
One tidbit I found pretty interesting was when Buck made a comment about horses that, “are fine in an arena but run away when they’re outside.” This isn’t really a problem we have, but he went on to discuss how a horse’s perception of where it can go in moments of crises has to do with how effectively you have closed all the doors/lines of escape. One problem we’ve had with Laredo is that while he’s totally relaxed and confident 99.9% of time, every now and then he just seems to snap and take off at a gallop, often for no reason we can see. (This has even happened in our tiny indoor arena.) I’ve been perplexed by this, because he is by no means a horse we don’t have good control over. Unless he’s in one of those freak-out moments, he’s soft, punctual, and responsive. We can walk and trot figure-eights on him with no reins, inside or outside, and he’ll fold into a stop like no other horse we have. He’s also just a totally laid back personality. It has always seemed strange that our chillest horse is the only one who will still sometimes bolt. As I listened to Buck talk about open doors, though, I got to thinking about how Laredo is also the only one of our horses we’ve really had to work on life with. When he gets frustrated, he’ll start to shut down mentally and get sluggish about responding to legs. Because of this, Brian has been riding him with spurs the last few weeks. This has had a great positive impact. Brian is already to the point that he basically doesn’t even use the spurs most rides. By having the extra tool to punch through Laredo’s occasional moments of resistance, everything about their rides have improved. What I realized listening to Buck is a horse that’s falling behind on impulsion has learned it can drop out the back of the rectangle. That’s an open door – which perhaps explains why Laredo feels he has an escape hatch to bolt through. This makes me hopeful that the lessons Brian has already made good progress on will carry over to eventually make the bolting something that doesn’t happen anymore.
Boundaries are Important
I feel like one fabulous thing I got out of this clinic was a better understanding of the haunches – how they influence movement in general, but most particularly with regards to taking and changing leads. At one point Buck pointed out that a horse who takes the wrong lead has to push through the signaling leg to get his hips in position, which means the horse is not respecting that leg as a boundary. That was a really fascinating insight for me, and just once again emphasized the importance of getting a horse to the point that they will never bulge through a barrier you’ve set for them.
So, all in all, it was a great time. At the end of the clinic, Buck talked about how some people seem to come to his clinics over and over and they bring the same problems year after year. He says those people are fine, he will keep trying to help them however he can. But what is exciting to him is when people come back with new problems. We’ve never been able to actually ride with Buck, but I left feeling pretty good about the fact that we’ve made huge strides with all of our horses since we last saw him. Now we can go forth and uncover new questions and issues for next time.